LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- How do you replace a legend? Here's how: You toss. You turn. All night long. Then you finally say, "Ah, screw it" and you get up at -- gulp -- 3:45 a.m. and head to work.
Now, maybe there are other ways of replacing a legend. Ways that don't involve lost sleep, a stop at 7-Eleven for coffee at 4:15 a.m. and a first-day office arrival time of 5 a.m.
If there are, new Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez didn't find them on the first day of Atlanta's post-Bobby Cox life.
"The trainers beat me here," Gonzalez quipped. "They must be excited, too."
|One way to make 2011 easier for the Braves is Nate McLouth bouncing back from a miserable '10. Read >>|
Upon Gonzalez's arrival, he found no letter stuck in a desk drawer from Cox, like an incoming president finds from his predecessor.
"I think Bobby left him a half-smoked cigar," Braves president John Schuerholz joked. "I think that may have been it."
Oh, but that wasn't it. There was something more, something that will make Life After Bobby a whole lot easier. Cox left Gonzalez one whale of a hardball team, one that won 91 games last year, returned to the playoffs and has the chance to be even better in 2011.
If Jair Jurrjens, whose 2010 was wrecked by an assortment of nagging injuries, pitches like he did in 2009, mark it down. Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe and Tommy Hanson are here to remind everyone that the Phillies didn't snag all of the starting pitching this winter.
"The goal here never changes," Gonzalez said. "It's to win championships. Anything short of that is not good.
"That's what the Atlanta Braves are known for. That's what our fans expect."
No question, the new man in the manager's chair is going to take some getting used to. For one thing, he won't be wearing metal spikes.
"No spikes," Gonzalez confirmed, chuckling. "I have trouble walking without spikes."
Breakout ... Jason Heyward: He was practically a must-start last year even though he had a month when he hit only .181 and finished with just 18 homers. He ranked 10th among full-time players with a .393 on-base percentage, which means his progression is mostly a matter of him getting comfortable and developing physically.
Bust ... Alex Gonzalez: His performance last year might lead some people to believe he's more useful than he actually is. Truth is he was a one-trick pony, and that one trick -- 23 homers -- equaled a career high. The 34-year-old isn't at an age when career highs come easily, and this one wouldn't have happened without an especially hot start with the Blue Jays. After he went to the Braves, he hit a modest six homers in 267 at-bats.
Sleeper ... Nate McLouth: McLouth wasn't just fourth-outfielder bad in 2010; he was out-of-the-major-leagues bad, spending almost all of August in the minors. But he returned to hit .273 with three homers and three steals in September, looking like the power-speed threat of old, making McLouth a bounce-back candidate no matter what the naysayers say. And the best part is he'll cost next to nothing on Draft Day.-- Scott White
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Weather forecasters already are calling for cooler temperatures in Atlanta. Cox was ejected a record 159 times. Gonzalez? According to the Society for American Baseball Research's David Vincent, Gonzalez has been ejected from 10 big-league games.
"I'll put it this way: Playing under Bobby for the two years that I have, it has been 100 percent him sticking up for his players," Lowe said. "If you ask him of the 159 times he was kicked out, how many times he knew the umpires were wrong, I bet it's only half the time. That's invaluable."
Gonzalez certainly will stick up for his players, just in different ways. They'll know it, because many of them know him. Gonzalez was Cox's third-base coach from 2003-2006, and Chipper Jones' endorsement came quickly after the Marlins fired Gonzalez last summer. That was invaluable in legitimizing Gonzalez as the rightful heir to the Braves' throne.
"Bobby and Fredi have such a remarkable relationship, most people couldn't understand," Schuerholz said. "It's father-son, mentor-mentee. Because of that, the transition has been so much smoother. It's not so dramatic. Not so stark.
"A transition this dynamic, a change so significant, to have done it so easily is because of the two principles. Bobby's a Brave. He's a Brave in his heart. He's a Brave in his soul.
"If there's anybody on this planet who wants Fredi to succeed more than Bobby, I haven't met that person."
Even after he left the Braves to manage the Marlins in 2007, Gonzalez, Cox, Atlanta pitching coach Roger McDowell and sometimes even Atlanta hitting coach Terry Pendleton would meet for breakfast a couple of times a week in the winter. The first three have houses in the same Georgia neighborhood, Pendleton is a little further away.
From that perspective, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Gonzalez is the first man other than Cox to manage the Braves since Russ Nixon in 1990. Yet the only significant difference Tuesday from the previous two decades was that the Braves worked out on the back fields instead of in the main stadium.
Otherwise, the rules remain the same. Be on time. Be ready to go. That's about it.
"Nobody has a job or school they've gotta go to, right?" Gonzalez reasoned. "Nobody's calling saying, 'I've gotta be late because I have a class.' "
So, in summary: "Be on time and give effort. Unless someone's working on a doctorate degree."
Cox, who long ago earned that on the diamond, is here as an advisor. But he's in street clothes and keeping a low profile.
As for the new guy, so far, so good -- though the break-in phase will continue. Gonzalez estimated he introduced himself to minor-league outfielder Wilkin Ramirez four times Tuesday.
On the flip side, even after awakening at 3:45 a.m., Fredi was ready: He slipped through the entire day's workout without even needing a nap.
"No, no, no," he said. "But I'll tell you what. Six-thirty tonight? Boom!"